Graham Joyce is a writer who's staked out the liminal territory at the fringes of genre fiction, just as his characters seem to inhabit worlds where dreams and hallucinations draw them to (and sometimes over) the edges of consensual reality. His narrator in The Limits of Enchantment, Fern Cullen, warns us on the first page that "If I could tell you this in a single sitting, then you might believe all of it, even the strangest part"; it is a tribute to Joyce's skilled and subtle hand that it's often the strangest parts of his stories that we do come away believing.
Fern is a young woman in the English Midlands of 1966, caught between the old world, of her adopted Mammy’s herbal lore and folk beliefs, and a fast-changing new one, where the music of the Rolling Stones spills from pubs, a band of hippies takes up residence at a nearby farm, and the traditions of country midwives are falling along the waysides of bureaucracy and technology. And Fern herself mixes faith in the old ways with modern skepticism. She knows, for example, that you don't need an ultrasound exam to tell whether a baby's a boy or a girl, but at the same time she’s not sure about the beliefs passed down to her from Mammy about the mistress, about the Asking, about how to make a wedding cake so the marriage doesn’t turn out bad.
When Mammy falls ill after she's implicated in an attempted abortion gone terribly wrong, the village begins to turn on Fern as they once turned on Mammy long ago. "How they hate you if you’re a little bit different," Mammy remembers. With Mammy hospitalized, Fern finds herself alone in the world for the first time, navigating her way in a complicated landscape of magic and betrayal.
In Fern's distinctive voice Joyce convincingly evokes a portrait of a sheltered woman barely past her teens and encountering the complexity of a world for which her upbringing has not entirely prepared her. His longtime readers will find him continuing to explore some familiar settings and themes, without ever seeming to repeat himself: from working class life in the Midlands to the transcendent power of sexual attraction to a world sometimes—often unexpectedly—illuminated by the numinous. But is the supernatural real, or simply the result of Fern's anguish, a desire for belief, and an ancient recipe for hallucinogens?
Joyce isn't going to make up our minds for us, and it's this ambiguity combined with his spare and elegant prose that lends his novels much of their quiet power. The Limits of Enchantment is another fine book by a writer whose own gift for enchantment has yet to display any limits.
Lynda E. Rucker writes fiction and worries about earthquakes from her home in Portland, Oregon. Her stories have appeared in The Third Alternative and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and her latest will appear in the upcoming Supernatural Tales #10. You can visit her online at www.sff.net/people/lyndaerucker.
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